MIAMI – Comeback, as defined for Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose by those most eager for his return, means something approximating the player he was immediately prior to his ACL tear in April 2012.
That wasn’t Rose’s MVP year. It was the post-lockout season, when several minor injuries limited him to 39 appearances. Rose’s scoring and shooting came back to the pack a little that season, his playmaking picked up and he looked his absolute best at the end, through the first three-and-a-half quarters of the playoff opener vs. Philadelphia in which his knew blew up.
Understandably, then, a lot of people who root for Rose or just want to see the best NBA players at their best have guarded against getting greedy. Keeping one foot in the land of possible disappointment, they have been careful about not wanting it too much.
But consider a brighter alternative: What if Rose comes back like Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson — OK, not as swiftly but maybe as spectacularly — to have the best season of his career? What if the extended layoff Rose orchestrated and navigated results not just in a solid comeback but a stellar one?
“When he attacks the rim, he doesn’t look like a guy who hasn’t played in a while,” Chicago backup center Nazr Mohammed said after the team’s final preseason game. Rose led the Bulls in scoring (20.7 ppg), hit 12 of 27 3-pointers (44.4 percent) and averaged 9.4 free throws.
“You saw how he went up against [Roy] Hibbert the other night,” Mohammed said. “He saw Hibbert right there and he attacked him. I’m a fan of the game and I’m telling you, watching him, the power and quickness he generates, it’s off the charts.”
It is possible, you know. Rose’s left knee, nearly a year and a half after surgery, is stronger than before. And since the idea was and is to ease the burden on his ligaments, the muscles around it have been strengthened. And then there’s the natural maturing of a young man from 23 to 25.
“A lot of guys come back from those kind of injuries,” Denver coach Brian Shaw said after his team faced Rose Friday, “and because they put so much time into rehabbing and strengthening up the area were they got injured, they end up getting stronger all over. That seems to be the case with him.”
Rehab pays off for Rose in preseason
Let’s not forget all the game wear-and-tear Rose did not endure last season. As rigorous as his rehab might have been, up to and including the Bulls practices in which he participated the second half of last season, contact was absent, later limited. He never had to overdo anything in the heat of a moment or gut something out for that night’s outcome. No one bodied him up aggressively or fell into him awkwardly. Even his bedtime was in his hands in ways it is not for players jetting post-midnight from city to city.
As a substitute for competition, Rose had to turn inward. His warm-ups before games only seemed pointless to folks hoping he would play; they were opportunities to extend his range and build his confidence. His legs did get stronger — Rose has mentioned several times this fall that he added five inches (from 37 to 42) to his vertical leap. Rose’s intense skills camp did a full lap on the calendar, then right through the summer.
When he stepped on the court at Indiana’s Bankers Life Fieldhouse Oct. 5, the visions Rose had had of playing reconciled nicely with the reality.
“It definitely compared to how I felt I was going to play, in my head,” he said four weeks later. “To where I’m driving, able to take the contact, I think I’m finishing a little more easy than I did my previous years. Getting to the line. The only thing now is just getting used to not draining myself and always having my feet under me on my jump shot.
“I think I’m back to myself. I think I’m more explosive. I’m picking my times when to take over a game, when to get guys open, pass the ball to guys so they can get a shot and get in a groove. And I think I’m becoming a better leader.”
Bill Wennington, former Bulls center turned team radio analyst, likes what he has seen of Rose in the preseason.
“I think his jump shot’s better,” Wennington said. “It looks like his range is a little better. His quickness and acceleration looks as good to me. Everyone’s talking about his elevation – I see him getting to the rim, I don’t see him quite getting over the rim.
“Everything else I’ve seen Derrick do is as good as or better athletically as he did before, other than the gravity-defying dunks where he gets up and just powers it down from above the rim. The rust is timing, playing with his teammates, but I think every game he’s been on the floor, that’s gotten better and it’s pretty darn good right now.”
Meanwhile, Rose had plenty of time to sit, watch and study. To absorb and process what he previously dealt with only on instincts and to hone his basketball IQ. And it’s all starting to show, with his prime-time regular-season unveiling tonight in Miami (8 ET, TNT).
“I know how hard I worked in the offseason just trying to get back on the court,” Rose said. “My hard work is paying off, where I’m still not in my groove-groove yet and I’m still able to go out there and control the game a little bit. I guess when I get back to my groove, it’s really going to be scary.”
A familiar act in Chicago?
So… as good as? Or even better? Perhaps the best comparison for the layoff-and-return of an MVP-level performer occurred right in Rose’s city, wearing Bulls whites. Michael Jordan missed most of his second season at age 23 with a foot fracture. He came back at the end of the 1985-86 season, scored 63 points in a playoff game against Boston, then had the most prolific season of his career.
On a 36-minute basis, Jordan’s scoring average in 1986-87 shot up by 26 percent (to 33.4 per game) over his previous full season. His field-goal attempts increased by 34 percent (to 25.0 per game) and his free throw attempts rose 26 percent (to 10.7 per game).
If Rose’s production in his MVP season soared by those amounts, he’d get to 30.4 points, 25.5 shots and 8.3 free throws per 36 minutes. His preseason stats (27.2, 15.8, 12.4 per 36) were steps in that direction.
Said Shaw: “The way that he’s played this preseason, he looks like he’s back to his MVP potential.”
Rose obviously was a star when he went down. He has a shot at coming back as a supernova.